Paul Thomas Anderson shows us the power of looking back.
September 22, 2012 3:17 amSam Lindauer
To those looking for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master to provide a deep dark look into the origins of Hollywood’s favorite cult, Scientology, you may be left feeling a bit disappointed, because this film is concerned with so much more than that. The Master deals with love, dependency, control, memory, and also happens to be pretty to look at. It really is a film that demands to be thought about a day or two after leaving the theater. Anderson weaves another film that’s beautiful and brash, but plenty ambiguous.
The Master is the story of former WWII sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who is thrust out into a post-war world he is not physically or mentally ready to take on. He’s sex-obsessed, erratic, violent and an alcoholic. Those are just the problems with Quell we can see. Anderson looms in closeup on Phoenix’s face so much it’s impossible to see that there isn’t more pain under a permanent snarl. Moving from job to job, philandering and basically being a massive screw-up, Quell stumbles upon a boat where he finds what may be the last home he’ll ever know.
On the boat we meet Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the author and preacher of “The Cause”, a way of tapping into past memories to help cure current ailments. “The Cause” claims to be able to dig back into past times through time travel to help heal those in the present. Anderson presents us with the perfect slave and the perfect master.
The film spans the weeks Quell slides into Dodd’s group of followers. Dodd has found the perfect lost boy to play lap dog. Both Phoenix and Hoffman display an uncanny ability to control the screen, which makes their scenes together as enthralling as film gets. This is the case when Dodd is “processing” Quell, effectively taking him back in his memories to relive his life’s trauma. The Master constantly reminds the audience of Quell’s memories of life in the Navy, thus reinforcing the power of the indelible moments in our lives that we think define us. Dodd has become “The Master” by learning to exploit memories in those who feel broken or lost.
Hoffman’s Dodd is beyond a snake oil salesman in the film. He’s more like a prophet, speaking with such authority on things that make absolutely no sense, yet sound like the truth of God. It’s a tribute to Anderson’s script and Hoffman’s performance that the infatuation with Dodd not only makes sense, but when outsiders disagree, it’s jarring. Anderson isn’t concerned with spending time on uncovering the massive scam that is “The Cause” and Lancaster Dodd. He takes the approach that all we need are small cracks in his perfect veneer to get the true picture of the man – bursts of anger at dissenters, trouble with the law, a family that is less cohesive than it appears. Hoffman and Phoenix are wonderfully complimented by Amy Adams’ performance as Lancaster’s wife, Peggy, an obedient, yet manipulative player in the ruse and the main window into the personal life of the man.
This ruse plays second fiddle in this movie because Anderson is more interested in the manipulator (Dodd) and the manipulated (Quell). Phoenix’s character seems to be the perfect prototype for someone who desperately needs control. While Quell spends his life running, the longest he stays put is when he’s left with a man who will tell him what to do, how to be good, how to be a man and not an animal. What Dodd actually gets at is how man is an animal and can be treated and trained like a dog, as all it takes is tapping in to the power of memory, the baggage we carry throughout our lives.
Likely to some people’s frustration, the film is often ambiguous, though that allows for space to consider the characters Anderson has constructed. Anderson’s greatest success was framing a complicated question in a simple and moving way. Is it better to be loved and manipulated or to be free and alone? Another way of thinking about it, was the much less artful, but much more direct “steak scene” in The Matrix. Framing the story around a cult leader and a man who seems to be the perfect “patient” would make for a great film. But the fact that Quell isn’t the perfect patient, but someone much more complicated makes it transcendent. There are so many battles going on in the life of Freddie Quell – sex, alcohol, violence, estrangement from a lost love – seeing how one man, Dodd, tries to exploit them all makes for wonderful theater.
Anderson creates a beautiful world (shot in 70 mm) and makes sure to linger on the faces of his subjects throughout, forcing us to read them like poker players, though often we know that just about everyone is bluffing at some point. “The Master” is certainly less straightforward than many of his past films, as this movie revels in memory and dreams. This focus on the past places us squarely in Quell’s shoes, and for just over two hours in a darkened theater, there are few more fascinating places to be.
|FIND YOUR GEEK RATING||5.0|